English Translation of the Wikipedia page " La ReFeRe" / by Rosemary Border


The ReFeRe

The ReFeRe (Réseaux Ferrés Réunis – pronounced ray-fay-ray), the United Rail Network, is an 'archipelago' of miniature rail networks on a scale of 1 in 87 created in  what their designer calls altermodélistique : we are dealing here with an imaginary world and with somewhat innovative modelling techniques.

 ReFeRe / Alain Fraval The Oasis. In the foreground : the Adhesion Centre

An imaginary world

On the edge of a poor country, poor because it lacks resources, in a cool temperate climate somewhere on Earth, at the present time.

Barren islets, where neither grass nor trees can grow, rise up out of a flat expanse of an indefinable and constantly changing substance known as the stroma. These islands are taken up with buildings (residential, industrial and railway-related), slag heaps, refuse dumps... all linked by a narrow gauge rail network. To get from one islet to another the trains make use of vehicles on air cushions, known as aéroglisseurs – hovercars.

The inhabitants are industrious and ingenious; they work mostly through the Internet, broadcast on radio waves (there is no telephone connection).  One particular building material is used everywhere: a sort of fibrocement known as concrète, although it bears little relation to the concrete used in our world. Concrète comes in slabs and is stuck together. Platforms, walls, bridges, roads, buildings, the bodywork of trucks and carriages  and propulsion units, footbridges, dustbins and guardrails are all fashioned from concrète – and painted in colours which are often difficult to put a name to.

The ReFeRe a has a total monopoly on transport systems (there are no roads, nor canals…) Its professional activity is to transport people, fuel and the parts and materials it requires in order to do its job; and that job consists of making the trains run. On the rail networks of the ReFeRe, haulage is entrusted to propulsion units powered by fuel oil (no overhead electrics here) and the length of the trains is severely limited. All the vehicles are built on site on recycled chassis imported from elsewhere. The characteristics of this universe were defined from the start in order to meet the technical requirements of construction.

 ReFeRe / Alain Fraval The Mine, the subterranean station of the Oasis


Building work on the ReFeRe began in the year 2000, initially in a loft at Boulogne-Billancourt (near Paris, France), then in a well-lit workshop at Vignol in the Nièvre (Burgundy). The scale is the classic H0 (or HO), that is: 1 in 87. The original track and rolling stock are N gauge (1 in 160) ; the space between the rails corresponds to a real life distance of  77.7 centimetres, ie narrow gauge.

The locomotives (2 rails, direct current) and the carriages and trucks (most of which are on bogies) are constructed on chassis to the same scale: American boxcars or tank cars, little shunters and assorted locomotives on Japanese motorized chassis.

Construction makes use mainly of cardboard, as well as watercolour paper and kitchen roll. Working with cardboard (a skill known as khartésurgie), cutting it with a Stanley knife and sticking it together, is quiet and clean (except when sanding is required).  The infrastructures, the builldings, the installations, the station platforms, the bridges, the bodywork of the rolling stock and most of the scenery are made out of these cellulose-based materials which make such a good job of imitating concrète and its by-products. Hills are built using a cardboard framework covered with kitchen roll pasted and then covered with sawdust or other aggregates. Recycled (or, when needs must, vandalised) items are added: drinking straws, kebab skewers, pens, Q-tips, glue pots, the sheathing from electric wires, old tubes...The paintwork, water-based acrylic, is generally applied with a mini roller. Other substances are often incorporated into it, such as sawdust, powdered stone, cardboard shavings, talc...The painted surfaces are then sanded down to simulate wear and tear.

ReFeRe / Alain Fraval The Station, looking down on the Academy of Railway Arts and Sciences and its wagonville, a shanty town composed of old railway carriages

The first two modules, known as Kilometre Seven and the Academy of Railway Arts and Sciences, were built conventionally on rectangular bases 2 centimetres thick in a homegrown honeycomb construction of cardboard, placed end to end and fastened together with wooden battens. This module started life in a loft and was fitted with castors to avoid falling into the stairwell.  

The infrastructure of the Oasis, which was designed and built in the workshop, consists of a dorsal spine made of cardboard, which holds up the factories, with cardboard struts which hold up the curves of the tracks as well as the mountain, which is hollow. The Oasis sits on a plywood base (122 x 250 cm) – but it can often be found hanging on the wall like a bas-relief.

The various elements of the ReFeRe are not fixed; they are designed to be viewed in isolation, from all sides (no sky or painted landscape as a backdrop) and placed at a convenient height of 1.30 metres. 

Construction takes place without a detailed plan; the layouts are drawn straight onto the paper or cardboard.

ReFeRe / Alain Fraval The Sneakmobile, surveillance railcar


Trains can run and perform manoeuvres on all the tracks. That is a condition which was set at the outset.

The motive power is provided by a transformer from a model train set. All the points and other track installations (turntable, sector plates, traverses, etc.), all actually work and are, literally, digitally controlled – that is to say, worked with the fingers.  Frogs are insulated; the power routing switch – in front of the layout - is mechanically linked to points by a brass rod.

The movements of the trains are simple. On the Oasis, in its exhibition setting, two trains run, on separate tracks, each in a different direction, each powered by a transformer. They stop on demand. Places for slowing down and stopping (breaks in the rails or cabling) are provided, which could be controlled by a computer.

The constant comings and goings of the Sneakmobile provide some excitement around the Nuclear Power Plant.

ReFeRe /Alain Fraval  On the Oasis, the big green hovercar transports a train

Interesting sites and installations

Customarily, the trains go past stations, apartment blocks, workshops,pieces of waste ground, factories, fences... over bridges (lots of these) and through tunnels (to cross the mountains), all distinguished by their originality.

 - The Turntable, inspired by devices which are normally kept in  hidden sidings on  shelf layouts, enables several trains to be turned and parked ;

 - the premises of the Academy of Railway Arts and Sciences (teaching, research, long-term planning), characterized by a distinctive architectural leitmotiv  and the recycling of passenger coaches  as offices and workshops, placed above the tracks or on the roofs of the building, forming a wagonville ;

 - the Depository, a lonely islet where rejects and waste are sorted, transported and thrown on a heap;

 - the Hovercars, vehicles for transporting entire trains, linking the islets, kept up by cushions of air, moored in the Hovercar Harbour; 

 - the Adhesion Centre, an industrial complex where the adhesive for  concrète  is manufactured;

 - the Mine, a vast subterranean station, housing in particular the underground premises of the kitchens ;

 - the Nuclear Power Plant, terrifying but soon to be entombed under unrecyclable waste in spite of the constant reshuffling this waste undergoes.

 ReFeRe / Alain Fraval A downtown station at Kilometre Seven

On Display

Three modules of the ReFeRe, the Academy, the Oasis et the Nuclear Power Plant, have been on permanent exhibition at the Musée des mondes imaginaires (Museum of Imaginary Worlds) / Atelier Alter Ego at Sauvigny in Burgundy since July 2011.